Friday, April 07, 2006

Strategic Distance and Tactical Freedom

"Liberated from the contents of communication, the addressee of the messages of the mass media recites only the global ideological lesson, the call to narcotic passiveness." - p. 136, 137, Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco. The Homer Simpson Disease. So, what next? What is the solution? How is one to maintain his or her freedom in today's world of mass media, by maintaining responsibility for one's self?

Let us set the scene, and the problem, further - the other side of the coin. "Accustomed to realizing the Distant (in space and time) through almost 'carnal' reproduction, how will the average American realize the relationship with the supernatural?...God can only be experienced as nature, flesh, energy, tangible image...God can only be found in the form of natural force, joy, healing, youth, health, economic increment (which, let Max Weber teach us, is at once the essence of the Protestant ethic and of the spirit of capitalism)." - same, p. 53. When it says here, "accustomed to realizing the Distant as a form of reproduction", Eco is referring to the spectacles of places like Marineland or the zoo - virtual experiences with things that are asbent in our lives, like nature and wildlife. He could have just as easily been talking about how mass communication through simulated means pushes and/or pulls on our "relationship with the supernatural", which is essentially, for our purposes, absent in regards to its tangibility, visibility or audibility.

What follows is a discussion of the first side of the coin on mass media: man's responsibility, in Umberto Eco's essay "Towards a Semiological Guerilla Warfare." I then hope to relate this clearly to the other side of the coin, how man relates to God (or, rather how God relatest to man).

There are two basic human reactions to the current field of play, as described above. The first is the one employed by those of Team Compassionate Hitler-Focault Complex. "As a rule, politicians, educators, communications scientists believe that to control the power of the media you must control two communicating moments in the chain: the Source and the Channel. In this way they believe they can control the message...'We must occupy the chair of the Minister of Information' or even '...'We must occupy the chair of the publisher of The New York Times'. " - 142. Run for office. Own a company. Buy and sell real estate (or oil). Do anything to gain more power, so as to be able to use that power for the good (assuming for one moment that one might actually be interested in the good of society over his or her own good).

However, "this strategic view can produce excellent results for someone aiming at political and economic success, but I begin to fear it produces very skimpy results for anyone hoping to restore to human beings a certain freedom in the face of the total phenomenon of Communication." Team Lazy-And-Offended Bohemian Hippies has another answer. Certain phenomenon of 'mass dissent' (hippies, beatniks, new Bohemias, student movements) today seem to us negative replies to the industrial society [come to a head in the TV]: The society of Technological Communication is rejected in order to look for alternative forms...from the love-in to the rally of students seated on the grass of the campus...can become forms...complementary to the manifestations of Technological Communication, the constant correction of perspectives..." - p. 143, 144.

I agree with Eco's basic point in this essay that the battle for freedom and responsibility, assuming there is one (and I think there really is!), is one to be fought on the ground. It's a "Guerilla War", as the title to Eco's essay indicates. "There exists an extremely powerful instrument that none of us will ever manage to regulate; there exist means of communication that, unlike means of production [production and communication, by the way are now, since we live in the world of this communication-instrument, intertwined - Porn stars defend their "productoin" of a film shown on the internet by claiming "free speech", i.e. "free communication of information"], are not controllable either by private will or by the community. In confronting them, all of us, from the head of CBS to the president of the United States, from Martin Heidegger to the poorest fellah of the Nile delta, all of us are the proletariat. And yet I beleive it is wrong to consider the battle of man against the technological univers of communication as a strategic affair. It is a matter of tactics." - p. 141, 142. "The battle for survival of man as a responsible being in the Communications Era is not to be won where the communication originates, but where it arrives." - p. 142.

"The idea that we must ask the scholars and educators of tomorrow to abandon the TV studios or the offices of the newspapers, to fight a door-to-door guerilla battle like provos of a Critical Reception can be frightening...But if the Communications Era proceeds in the direction that today seems to us most probable, this will be the only salvation for free people." - p. 143. He used the word "salvation". Of course, as a Christian, I don't fully agree with the full meaning he has in mind here (he's arguing from the point of view of the tradition of the free citizen of the Greek polis). As a Christian, however, I think I have an obligation to take his basic lesson about how communication and media work, and make it work for my own ends. I think they fit well together. Its a question of Redemption.

The strategy forming Team Compassionate Hitler-Focault Complex, in forgetting that "the medium is the message", heads directly to the source of the media, expecting to influence the contents of the medium and thereby bring a better, more posotive message. "They forget that, 'The mass media do not transmit ideologies; they are themselves an ideology.' This position, which I defined as 'apocalyptic' in a previous book of mine, implies this further argument: It doesn't matter what you say via the channels of mass communication; when the recipient is surrounded by a series of communications which reach him via various channels at the same time, in a given form, the nature of all this scant information is of scant significance. The important thing is the gradual, uniform bombardment of information, where the different contents are leveled and lose their significance...When the mass media triumph, the human being dies." - p. 136, 137.

Team Compassionate Hitler-Focault Complex would probably fall into the following category: "Naturally there are educators who display a simpler optimism, derived from the Enlightenment; they have firm faith in the power of the message's contents. They are confident that they can effect a transformation of consciousness by transforming television programs, increasing the amount of truth-in-advertising spots, the precision of the news in the columns of the newspaper." But it would be my hope as a Christian, interested in healthy relationships between real human beings (not virtual ones), and in Real community, to talk to people about the messages in the media, or rather the message of the media (since "the medium is the message"). It would be my hope thereby to transform the very meaning of the media itself from the ideology of the communications media to this very, actual conversation itself, by and between actual humans with acutal voices (rather than simulated ones). I would hope to re-Source the message of the medium onto our very own selves, our actual voices, by not heading directly at the source of the message, that message being the media. I would not run for chair of the Minister of Information, but I would hope to have a conversation with his son about the media who might be a friend of mine in school or at work.

I am thinking of an image to guide what I mean, something that happend, by accident, which I did not in any way plan. J.R. a while ago posted on his blog site a blog called "Technology, Curse or Blessing." I posted a comment that showed my anger and discust at the 'apocalyptic' condition in which our technologies seem to have placed us. My friend at work said something to me, and I responded gruffly. He was like, "Whoah there tiger, what's wrong?" I was pissed. So later, after I was finished writing, I showed it to him. We got to talking. Soon another friend who sits near us had interestedly joined our conversation. Soon another who sits in the other room overheard our conversation on his way to the bathroom, and also joined attentively. We got to talking about the true nature of community and how technology, money and power seems to mysteriously leave a big hole in the heart.

The original friend shared about his trip to El Salvador; emotionally describing to us in great detail how alive and dignified the people are there, despite the poverty and simplicty if their lives. Many of them don't have cars, much less internet. When my friend returned to his home, Audi A4 and myspace account in the U.S., along with his lonliness, he told us, he sobbed uncontrollably. The second lady to join the conversation shared that she had just recently seen the film "Crash", and was moved by the opening lines, "In any other city, any real city, you touch people. You walk past them, make eye contact, you brush up against them. In L.A., no. You're always seeing everything through all this metal and glass. Everybody's always at such a distance from each other. You wanna know what I think? I think peple have to crash into each other just to remember what it's like to feel something."

Further, I think that when this happens, when the the Strategic Distances are repalced by the meaning of each valued person's actual voice in a relationship - Tactical Freedom, we will better be able to relate to God the way He made us to relate to Him. We will no longer feel burdened by the sense that, "God can only be experienced as nature, flesh, energy, tangible iamge...God can only be found in the form of natural force, joy, healing, youth, health, economic increment..."

The Incarnation reveals to us that the prime and fundamental dichotomy at work in the universe is between the seen and the unseen, the ineffable and the audible, the metaphysical and the "carnal". The Incarnation teaches us that the hidden God wants to be close by, to "show His face" to us. He wants to whisper sweet nothings - into our actual ear! Not our virtual one. Not an ear whose reality is hidden and listening out for a virtual voice. I don't think we'll really hear any messages from God on our cell phones! "God doesn't just want to inform you about His love in books and on the internet. God wants to sweep you way with a great and majestical experience of the raging fire of His all-consuming Love!" - Brennon Manning, paraphrase.

"You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." "Come to me all who thirst and are weary, for I am the way, the truth, and the life." "When the mass media triumph, the human being dies." "But if the Communications Era proceeds in the direction that today seems to us the most probable, this will be the only salvation for free people."

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